We needed a shout. We got a whimper

Last week the Commission of the European Union issued a press release with a headline which is a little at odds with the contents. Here it is

Commission steps up efforts to tackle illegal content online.

In fact the press release only speaks specifically about terrorism-related items and hate speech. The associated Communication picks up on and refers to a wider range of issues, including child abuse material, but even here there is an acknowledgment that this latest initiative was motivated by the terrorist acts that took place in different EU Member States earlier this year and last.

What are we to conclude from this? The politicians are focused on terrorism, the Commission staff have a broader vision? Hmmm.

Obviously I am pleased more seems to be getting done about terrorism and hate speech but maybe I am also feeling a bit concerned that children are slipping down the ladder. We shall see.

The Communication is (obviously) the more substantial of the two documents.  It is an excellent summary of a range of  EU initiatives and measures which impact on the area of illegal and highly undesirable content but its language is resolutely stuck in the frame of self-regulatory co-operation i.e. the very system that brought us to the present state of affairs.  For companies famed for “getting ahead of the curve” when it comes to technology that will make a buck, with one or two honourable exceptions they always seem not only to be behind the curve but only to start moving forward towards par when pushed by screaming headlines and the politicians’ inevitable follow through. This does not inspire confidence or trust.

In her quote in the press release Commisioner Jourova hints at the prospect of a more muscular, legislative approach if this latest push does not deliver so one is left with a sense that such a scenario may only be one bad set of headlines away. Everything feels flimsy, provisional and contingent. We needed  a shout. We got a whimper.


Transparency is mentioned quite a lot. Here is the key excerpt

Online platforms should publish transparency reports with sufficiently detailed information on the number and type of notices received and actions taken, as well as the time taken for processing, and the source of the notification. These reports should also include information on counter notices, if any, and the response given to these. The Commission encourages the publication of this information on a regular basis and at least once per year.

Good luck with that. When we last discussed something like this with Facebook in the UK they told the Government unequivocally they would not release any information they were not legally obliged to publish.

Assuming that little problem can be solved the Communication still does not make clear how the Commission will satisfy itself everything that can reasonably be done is being done, not just in relation to items reported.

For example will companies include in their transparency reports details of content they found as a result of their own proactive searching?

I applaud the Commission’s obvious enthusiasm for companies becoming more proactive in finding bad stuff on their platform and in making a greater effort to enforce their own terms and conditions of service. I can only express the hope that the Commission has correctly interpreted the law. They say there are no issues with the immunity guaranteed by the eCommerce Directive but, er, they would wouldn’t they? Yet they are not a court.

Finally, it is made clear throughout that the main focus of the Communication is and has been the larger platforms. The smaller guys were in their minds, we are told, but they will be looking at that dimension separately. Good. And remember this: Europe in general and one country in it in particular, Holland, are now the largest sources of online child abuse images in the world How did that happen? You cannot lay it at the door of Facebook, Google,  Microsoft or Twitter. On the contrary, two of those companies, Microsoft and Google, have developed tools which, if more widely deployed or used, could have helped us all avoid that badge of shame.


About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International and is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John is now or has formerly been an Adviser to the Council of Europe, the UN (ITU), the EU and UNICEF. John has advised many of the world's largest technology companies on online child safety. John's skill as a writer has also been widely recognised. http://johncarrcv.blogspot.com
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